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In the Conversation About Community Safety Partnerships and Public Housing, Where are the Residents?

“HACLA has turned their back on us because they don’t respect the Residential Advisory Committees that have organized in these housing developments."

Additional reporting and translation by Ivan Salinas.

Para leer este artículo en español, haga clic aquí.

A stretch of backyards in Mar Vista Gardens, where residents say HACLA and City Council are shutting them out of the budgeting process. (PHOTO: TravelingMan)

Jaime Zeledon was living in Jordan Downs public housing located in Watts when his son started to exhibit erratic behavior, later diagnosed as Bipolar Disorder. Zeledon called the police hoping that they would provide help to him but rather than intervene with a mental health expert, the officers beat, arrested and attempted to deport his son.

“I educated myself about his mental illness and asked for the police to help me bring him to a center where they could treat him, but instead they assaulted him and suggested that I should charge him for attempted murder,” said Zeledon. “My son was almost deported and I was forced to evict him, otherwise I was going to be evicted, too. Police are not equipped to deal with these types of cases. They sent him to Adelanto federal prison where he was almost deported.”

Last week, the Los Angeles City Council approved a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) to implement the Community Safety Partnership (CSP) Program in eight public housing communities across LA in spite of mass opposition from residents, resident advisory councils (RAC) and housing organizers.

HACLA will provide LAPD with a reimbursement budget of no more than $1,750,000 per CSP program to run from January 1, 2021 through December 31, 2025 with a total reimbursement of $8,750,000. The public housing units include: Avalon Gardens, Gonzaque Village, Imperial Courts, Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, Pueblo del Rio, Ramona Gardens, and San Fernando Gardens

CSP programs, better known as ‘community policing,’ assign officers to one place so they can build a relationship and trust with the community. The program targets Black and Brown communities that have historically been brutalized by the LAPD who have historically labeled them as gang members and criminals.

Why did LA City Council approve a $9 million budget to increase community policing in public housing, a community predominantly of people of color, after they cut $150 million from the LAPD budget to invest in communities of color?

HACLA and the Resident Advisory Council (RAC)

HACLA “was established in 1938 by the City of Los Angeles Resolution №1241,” the agency’s website states. “HACLA has grown to become one of the nation’s largest and leading public housing authorities, providing the largest supply of quality affordable housing to residents of the City of Los Angeles.”

In the city of Los Angeles 19.1% of the population live below the poverty line, that’s 6% higher than the national average. As of January 2019 there were 45,384 families on HACLA’s wait list for public housing; 25,306 families are looking to be placed in 1 bedroom units.

HACLA runs on an annual budget of over $1 billion dollars funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s, Section 8 rental subsidies, public housing rent and other grants, all to provide affordable housing as well as special programs for its residents. It owns roughly 83,000 units throughout the city housing low income families, the unhoused, disabled and elderly people, all of which are mostly people of color.

As a part of regulation 24 CFR Part 964 of the 1986 Housing Act, the RAC was created “to recognize the importance of resident involvement in creating a positive living environment and in actively participating in the overall mission of public housing.” Both Public Housing Assistance (PHA) and HUD have an obligation to encourage resident participation through training and other initiatives which would allow residents to voice their concerns as well as ideas to HACLA on what they believe would improve their living environment.

The HACLA website clearly states they are supposed to hold meetings with RAC leadership to hear their suggestions and concerns. Jamie Zeledon and Daisy Vega — both residents, RAC members of Mar Vista Gardens, and POWER organizers — explain that HACLA continues to ignore them.

“HACLA has turned their back on us because they don’t respect the RACs that have organized in these housing developments,” said Zeledon, who has been living in public housing since the ‘90s after he immigrated from Nicaragua. I am a resident of Mar Vista Gardens, there’s no democratic process to make these decisions. The worst part is that the board commissioners representing the housing projects are not doing their job. They’re not in contact with the residents.”

Neither residents or housing activists were aware until three days before the February 17th meeting that the LA City Council was to vote on the approval of HACLA’s budget for LAPD to move forward with the implementation of CSP in public housing. HACLA wasn’t in attendance during the meeting to answer questions, leading to a unanimous decision to pass the MOA.

“I see this as an injustice, I feel that they’ve stolen from us. We are asking for this money because families are thousands of dollars in debt,” said Vega. “This money could be used to help them pay for rent for people who are undocumented. There aren’t any reparations of quality. There isn’t any help from HACLA directly.”

History of the CSP Program

The creation of the Community Safety Partnership (CSP) Program traces its roots in public housing, specifically Jordan Downs in Watts. In the 1995 case Zuniga v. Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles — where five of thirteen family members were killed by “drug dealers” in a Jordan Downs unit, after the Zuniga family had called the police multiple times and filed a request to HACLA to move units after being warned by previous tenants that this was a problem — HACLA was found legally responsible since they did not protect their tenants and provide safe housing, thus formalizing HACLA’s obligation to ensure its residents’ safety. This was initially accomplished through supplemental policing contracts, which created a HACLA PD.

The first CSP program was established in 2011 by HACLA, the LAPD, and the Mayor’s Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) in Jordan Downs, later expanded to Nickerson Gardens, Imperial Courts, and Ramona Gardens. The LAPD claims that the program, “is an opportunity for officers to work side by side with residents and community members to develop and implement sustainable programs, eradicate crime, address quality of life issues all while simultaneously bridging the gap between the community and the LAPD.”

Prior to the implementation of CSP, very little research had been done to prove this would be a successful model. It took until 2020 for UCLA Luskin to create the first CSP Evaluation Report where they only studied two of the four existing programs for a year at Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens.

The researchers interviewed several CSP officers, residents and stakeholders most of which described “an overall lack of knowledge surrounding the CSP model, its components, and its ongoing implementation. Accompanying the general lack of understanding about CSP, data from both sites indicated there is weakened fidelity to the model that does exist.”

While Mayor Garcetti and Councilmembers like Joe Buscaino (who sat on the advisory committee for the report) tout the successful findings that CSP does in fact work, LAist reported the evaluation was “funded by the Weingart Foundation and the Ballmer Group, among other donors — some of the same groups that paid for an expansion of the CSP program in 2017.” The reality is that residents have continued to be hurt by community policing the same way as traditional policing.

“In the 90s I lived in Jordan Downs, Watts. Back then we didn’t hear about CSP until a few years after. We were told there was going to be a new security program that would involve LAPD.The experience I had with this program is negative,” said Jaime Zeledon. “This is a discriminatory and racist program that targets people of color in housing developments. We’ve seen how the police take photos of them nude and put their names in their database. It’s labeling them as gang members and criminals. And if you’re Latino it’s worse. If you don’t have documentation, the LAPD turns them over to ICE.”

With police already starting to move into the community many are worried that HACLA is putting pressure on gentrifying public housing by selling units to the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) who are already redeveloping Jordan Downs into mixed income housing.

“They need to reinforce these areas with police force so if people that are removed they happen to come back and find they would no longer qualify, the police would be there to further oppress them,” said Vega.

What Residents Actually Want

Jose Estrada, who’s originally from Honduras, is a community organizer with POWER and has been working with residents of San Fernando Gardens and Mar Vista Gardens for almost four years. He knows of residents that owe $4,000 to 5,000 dollars in rent who aren’t receiving any help, and once the rent moratorium is over he believes they’re going to be evicted. Rent relief is one of the many ways residents and organizers believe the $9 million CSP budget could have been redirected to.

Mental health issues, drug abuse and school retention are a few of the many problems that residents deal with and have yet to see any program be funded to help them. “We would want to help the Black and Latino youth residents and also empower single mothers whose children are going through drug abuse.” said Zeledon. “Instead of having more police involved I would like to see more programs to train youth in technology, to get their GEDs and go to community college, and empower single mothers, not to evict them.”

Vega witnessed her son struggle to keep up with school and had to find outside help when he needed to do math tutoring, even though HACLA states that one of their resident services is educational development. “I’ve made the sacrifice to pay for tutoring classes for my son. I told an executive director of HACLA, why not help kids in math at a younger age rather than just in high school? When a child knows math, their self-esteem is higher and they excel in more classes.”

Vega wants the democratic process that was promised to her by HACLA when she joined RAC because there’s no vision for CSP, but rather put that funding to secure the future of housing residents. “Why can’t we make video-game tournaments with awards and prizes? That would be great for children nowadays. Also, if we were to provide laptops, kids would be able to get a laptop as long as they finish an entire training class to receive their own laptop and they would have to graduate to motivate them. That is my personal vision. Like MLK said, ‘I have a dream.’ Give our people empowering tools so they can become leaders in the future.”